Germany plans to ban combustion cars by 2030. Morocco, which hosts COP22, has started electrifying electric buses in Casablanca. Even in China, we often talk about electric vehicles. Is all this quite reasonable?
Humans are made in such a way that they will always move and travel more and more as long as they can. Holy mobility, close to the human right. Daring to affect mobility is as serious as affecting individual freedom. Even worse: affecting car feels like losing social status. As a result, mobility has hardly been addressed by the Grenelle Environnement Forum or by the energy transition law.
The idea saying that the electric vehicle (EV) is green and sustainable is a beautiful legend. Very deeply entrenched in people’s minds, this legend is almost never questioned. Actually, it is sometimes thrown into question, but it’s not systematic at all. We will see that the electric car can be both the best and the worst for the climate.
I will make this presentation in a very academic way: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Thesis: Electric cars are rotten. Antithesis: yes, but still. Synthesis: this is a question of perspective and a bet on the future.
Thesis: Electric cars are rotten.
For an electric car to be environmentally friendly, it must run on clean electricity. Otherwise, the car does not pollute, but the way of producing its energy does, which is the same thing in the end.
Explanation: Let’s take the example of two cars: car A (with petrol) and a car B (electric) which are both used in a country where the hypothetical electric mix is made up of oil-fired thermal power stations (there a very few of these kind of power stations, because it’s a waste to put fuel in these thermal power stations, but well, let’s imagine…).
Car A burns gasoline to run because it has an internal combustion engine. This is this explosion that is emitting CO2.
Car B does not emit a single molecule of CO2 when it is driven. However, in order to produce the electricity that provides power to the car, a thermal power station has been run and it’s been burning fuel oil, which does emit CO2. Then the car B is responsible for emissions that are called “indirect” CO2 emissions.
At first glance, the emissions are of the same order of magnitude for both cases. The internal combustion engine is less efficient than the thermal power plant, but electricity transmission also costs energy. Let’s say it could balance out.
In reality, power plants run on coal (which emits more CO2 than fuel oil), on gas (which emits less), or on low-carbon energies such as renewable and nuclear (which, to keep it simple, do not emit).
To give an order of magnitude: with a mix representative of the global electric mix, an electric car emits as much CO2 as a thermal car. Therefore, an electric car that is driven in France, Switzerland or Norway (with a low carbon mix), emits less than a gasoline car. On the other hand, an electric car in Germany, Morocco, China or, worse, Poland emits more CO2 than a combustion car because of the indirect emissions of the carbon mix of these countries.
The real ecological advantage of the electric vehicle is the fact that it does not emit fine particles, which are a local pollution (here we can relate this information to what’s happening in Shanghai or Beijing).
Let’s return to carbon. Some countries want electric cars and among these countries, some of them have a very carbonated electric mixes. Those are so carbonated, that an electric car over there emits more CO2 from well to wheel than a combustion car!
You might say, let’s stop being such a killjoy, you only have to equip yourself with solar panels and power your car with them. That’s true. But it’s still a bit of a mindset. Indeed, if you live in Germany, and you buy 1) 10m² of PV panels and 2) an electric car, you can then say that your car is green. But what would have happened if you had 1) bought 10m² of PV and 2) kept your thermal car? You wouldn’t have a green car, of course, but your PV panels would then completely erase carbon from production means and your carbon footprint would be better than with an electric car. And this comparison is the one that must be made, if we want to stay intellectually honest.
Moreover, at a country scale, no one is responsible for ensuring that enough green electricity will be produced to absorb the new electricity demand generated by the electrification of these uses, and certainly not the builders. They put PV panels all over their advertising brochures, but much less on rooftops! When their sales will skyrocket, they’ll explain without the slightest scruple that it is not up to them to supply clean electricity.
Should we then forget all about the electric car?
Not at all, because it has an indispensable role in the transition. All scenarios that are compatible with warming below 2°C (IPCC RCP2.6 scenarios) include a mobility electrification component. So there is an electric car in the IPCC 2°C scenarios. Why? Quite simply because it is easier to decarbonize electricity than liquid fuels.
Now that we understood all this, we is tempting to think it would make more sense to decarbonize the mix before electrifying transportation, isn’t it?
Then what is the reason for launching these electrification programs so quickly?
Antithesis: yes, but still…
Yet there is an argument to rush into electrification of transportation, as there is for other fields burning fossil fuels. Here it is: renewing the vehicle fleet takes time and it might not be necessary to wait until the mix is completely carbon-free to do so. The rotation speed of a fleet renewal is around 17 years, but changes in habits and adaptation infrastructure is even longer.
Moreover, charging batteries is a “controllable” consumption of electricity: you can plug in your car when it is stopped and set up an intelligent system that allows it to recharge only when renewable energy is available on the grid. As the variable, predictable but uncontrolled nature of some renewable energies will be a problem once they become dominant, any controllable consumption is welcome.
Synthesis: this is a matter of perspective and a bet on the future.
The argument saying that it will take several decades to switch to EV and that it will take just as long to decarbonize the mix and we are therefore forced to do both at the same time, is an argument that is tenable and sensible.
But I would put forward two arguments in opposition to this idea:
First, we risk missing the opportunity to reduce transportation energy consumption. Transport emissions are the product of the number of km travelled, the energy expended per km, and the carbon intensity of energy.
For what it is worth, let us make a parallel with housing: it is better to insulate your house before changing your boiler, as not to end up with an oversized boiler. If you have divided the heating needs by 4, you can buy a boiler four times smaller.
The same applies in transport, I recommend that we first tackle the number of kilometres travelled, the filling rate of vehicles, as well as their efficiency (energy per km) and even their fuel efficiency (cars that are lighter and slower). All these actions will reduce energy consumption and therefore CO2 emissions over time, even if this does not lead to zero. When we will have divided all this by two or three, then it will be time to move on towards the last term of the equation which consist of decarbonizing energy.
I agree with the fact that this argument is fragile and that there is a problem of dynamicity: since all these changes take time, we would probably have to make it all in parallel to have some chance of getting there by 2050!
This is not wrong, but here is the reason that really makes me hesitate – and it’s quite a big doubt – to push too fast the electrification of mobility.
There are electric cars in the 2°C scenarios, but there are also electric cars in the 5°C scenarios!
Peak oil is happening right now. We can debate the exact date but still, whether it is 2006 or 2020 does not change the reasoning at the scale of the century. Oil is the preeminent energy for transportation, and transportation is at the heart of the economy. Without transport, there would be no GDP, no economic activity and… no GHG emissions! Therefore, to reach the emission levels of the IPCC’s RPC8.5 scenarios, which lead to +5°C, we need a transport system that would gradually have no need for oil. And how? Guess what.
There is no doubt, in my view, that we cannot reach the emission levels of the RCP8.5 scenarios without electric transport, but we would with coal-fired electricity until it is exhausted. If the economy is not dependent on coal-fired electricity, I am convinced that we would not extract the last tonnes of coal. Still, our economy would be if it is been freed from oil thanks to electric mobility.
Saying we would get free from oil does sounds great for sure. However, if it was in the aim of saving the climate, then it would be fine. But if it is only to adapt our life after peak oil, well, then it depends. It could be worse than anything: imagine if there were 500 million electric cars in China, knowing the rate of electricity decarbonisation there, it would be threatening the climate.
We are therefore facing a dilemma looking like the one displayed by the philosopher Blaise Pascal.
As an optimistic person, let’s say I have a choice between a middle scenario and a low scenario, what should I choose? The low one, for sure! And to do so, I would rather electrify mobility at the same time as decarbonising my electricity.
However, as a pessimistic person, assuming I think I have the choice only between the RCP8.5 scenario, which is the worst one (+5°C) and a median scenario, what should I choose? I would obviously choose the median scenario. And to do so, ironcally as it may seem, I would decide not to develop the electric car, even though it implies that we would be troubled with mobility during the century, and we would have to relocate the economy a little (but we should be able to get by).
The real question is: do we have to choose between the low and the median scenarios (if we are optimistic) or between the median and the high scenarios (we are pessimistic)? Are we facing a choice between +2°C and +3°C or a choice between +3°C and +5°C?
Let me give you a hint: so far, we are following the high scenario…
So let’s take the time to think about the need we have to be optimistic or pessimistic to trigger change (and I have few good wine bottles at home for that purpose). Still, let’s wait until we’ve really initiated the transition before talking about electric cars and let’s agree upon a rule: never deploy electric cars until we have sufficiently decarbonised the mix of countries in which they drive, so that they’re at least on an equal basis with thermal cars. It’s safer.